By Annie Fast
Imagine putting on a pair of goggles and headphones and entering an alternate reality: You look to the left—there's Danny Davis—Hey man! To the right is Scotty Lago—Woo! Through the howling wind you hear someone behind you, turning you scan past a wide-open untracked run hemmed in by trees—Jack Mitrani is strapping in. You duck as the immense sound of a helicopter crests the ridge. Shit is intense! These guys are dropping in three, two, one…you resist the urge to bend your knees and point it downhill with the crew.
Welcome to the hyper-immersive experience of virtual reality snowboarding. Having first come on the scene in the 1970s, VR technology has continued to develop, becoming more consumer-friendly and evermore immersive with fluid 360-degree panning 3D views and true-to-life audio. This February Mountain Dew brought Scotty, Danny and Jack into the Utah backcountry for this first ever live-action VR snowboarding experience with, who else, but Brain Farm directing and producing. Firstborn creative agency conceptualized the project and, with help from the technology company behind Google Street View, created a custom handheld VR camera rig and editing technology. Antfood, an audio studio, took on the challenge of creating a handheld binaural audio pole custom for the shoot. And TransWorld was invited along to witness it all go down…and try to stay out of the 360-degree shots.
This was the second experimental VR shoot for Dew—the first took place this past summer with Paul Rodriguez skating down Freemont Street in Las Vegas. Backcountry snowboarding was the obvious next stop with Danny coming off a big X Games win. The choice of shooting in the backcountry as opposed to a controlled park setting presented unique challenges, namely transporting a production crew of 20-plus people into the backcountry, howling winds on the ridgetops, and especially touchy avalanche conditions. The justification for the added effort was that the end result would be something that viewers might never experience in their real lives—backcountry snowboarding versus the relatively accessible experience of riding a resort park. The elements in the backcountry, especially the wind, proved to be a worthy nemesis for the VR camera rig, an orb custom fitted with 14 POV cameras, forcing the crew to minimize to six cameras. The audio rig, which initially looked alarmingly like a human head mounted on a stick, was wind-proofed with a white cotton sheath and was immediately dubbed "the Q-tip."
Jack, relying on his follow-cam experience from the past decade filming FrendsVision, was armed with the VR rig and given specific direction not to pan the camera (panning tends to cause motion sickness for viewers). Once the POV's were synced up on the ridge the guys would drop simultaneously in whatever formation they fell into. Danny said, "As long as we were within the bubble with Jack, he could be out in front of me and, even though it looks like he has the camera pointed forward, I'd still be in the shot."
Each run was filmed nonstop from top to bottom. Danny said, "It's rare that we get to do this, just go out heli and have fun, take turns, hoot and holler, pointing stuff out to each other slashing and having fun."
Video from the Dew VR Snow shoot
Brain Farm director Chris Zamoscianyk described how the relatively new process of shooting live VR differs from any other action shoot: "With this, you don't get the cutaways, the whole point is that you're supposed to be immersed in the world, everything you see around you is what you experience." Compare that to the way shots are usually edited—establishing scenes of the environment, athlete portraits, action—to give you a feeling of what it's like to be somewhere.
The two-day shoot is just the tip of the iceberg in an elaborate production process. What comes next is an exhaustive, detailed stitching together of all of the POV camera shots to create the 360-degree 3D world. The sound is incorporate using a coded algorithm that tells the audio to pan according to wherever you move within the shot. You look to your right and your whole peripheral vision shifts to your right and the audio follows suit just as it would in the actual environment.
But where can you experience this virtual reality you ask? The final three-minute backcountry VR experience will debut at the Mountain Dew booth during the Burton US Open in Vail, Colorado March 4–7. Guests will be able to try on the VR headset and virtually enter the backcountry. For those of you not in Vail during the US Open, the good news is that this technology is now becoming available for consumers to use at home with the recent release of the Samsung Gear VR headset priced at 199 dollars. There's also a new Netflix-style marketplace for virtual reality content called Samsung MilkVR. Both the Dew skate and snowboarding VR experiences will be available for home users via the marketplace.
At the moment, Mountain Dew is leading the VR game in action sports, but with these new developments in home VR systems and new distribution, we're betting they won't be alone for long.